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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Rainy Day for My Soul

I have mixed feelings about the rain falling outside.  After dragging my feet for most of the summer, I finally pulled the trigger on finishing my porch project last week.  Naturally, this week we have the first decent rain we've had in three months, and so my porch continues to sit there without a roof and without any progress being made towards one.

But my brown, crunchy grass really needs the rain.  My dry, scorched soul needs the rain too.  I'm not sure why, but for some reason it's easier for me to slow down on a rainy day.  There's something about a rainy day that puts me in a more contemplative mood.  I'm much more inclined to want to sit inside and read or write, and somehow, I feel more permission to do that as well.  On a bright, sunny day I feel like I ought to be out there doing.  But today, its wet out there and it's warm and dry in here, so I'm more inclined stay inside and have a slower day of just being.

There's something more going on today than just preferring to be warm and dry though.  There's a spiritual reality going on outside my window that reminds me of what's true of my heart as well.  I see my grass and flowers' need for the rain.  I see them withering under the constant beating down of the sun and summer heat.  I see them turning green and coming back to life as they soak up the cool, refreshing rain.  I wish it were that easy to see when my soul's dry and withering.  I suspect others see it or feel it in me - people who sit across from me wanting to be cared for, friends who want to be with me and enjoy me, my wife and kids who want me to be fully present to them.  I expect they feel it when my soul's parched and there's little or no life there for me to give them.  And I know Jesus recognizes my soul's dry weariness too - not exactly the "abundant life" he came to give me.

Thankfully, sitting in my quite den this morning, I see it too.  I feel my need to rest, soak, and be refreshed.  Psalm 63 has always been one of my favorite Psalms.  I don't usually pay much attention to the small captions before each Psalm, but I've always been struck by this one: "A psalm of David.  When he was in the Desert of Judah."  It provides a striking context for David's words:
O God, you are my God,
       earnestly I seek you;
       my soul thirsts for you,
       my body longs for you,
       in a dry and weary land
       where there is no water.  (Ps. 63:1)
In an environment that creates physical thirst, David is aware of, and focuses on his soul's thirst for God.  We need "rainy days" where we rest, and soak, and are refreshed in God's presence.  Our souls thirst for the One who can give us living water.  I'm thankful for today's rain because it feels like a gift: a loving reminder and invitation to come and be refreshed and renewed by Him.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal... in the Fall

This blog has come to look like most of my journals - off to a respectable start after some fresh inspiration followed by a long period of dormancy.  I've never been particularly successful at maintaining a journal.  I know people who have numerous journals that document their spiritual journey over the years.  I've always liked that idea and admired people who are able to do that.  I have numerous journals too, but mine have ten to twenty pages of entries followed by scores of blank pages, eventually replaced by yet another new journal that brought with it the hopes of a fresh start that would end differently. 

But it's not just my journals and this blog that look that way, my life generally looks that way.  The best of intentions, hopes, and plans gradually gets overtaken by the busyness and demands of life.  One of the saving graces of my job as a pastor is that my schedule changes significantly every fall, spring, and summer.  I love these transition times, because they afford me the opportunity to start over, jettison the clutter that creeps into my calendar and reevaluate my priorities and how I'm spending my time. 

That's where I find myself these days, wiping the calendar clean and deciding what the "big rocks" in my life are and where to put them in my calendar.  Back in the calendar are the exercise plan that I followed regularly for the first time in my life from January through May and then let drop into oblivion during the summer, date nights with my wife and each of my kids, and of course the slower pace and contemplative time that was the original motivation behind starting this blog. 

Along with being a healthy reorientation of priorities, this process is often a good gospel reorientation for me as well.  It always used to (and sometimes still does) come with a sense of shame and frustration.  Along with the hope and excitement for making changes is the realization that I'm making the same changes again because I've failed to maintain them again.  The temptation is to believe that God is disappointed with my failure and his patience is growing thin.  Implicit in this belief is the notion is that he is somehow surprised by my weakness and failure.  But every time He reminds me that He knows me better than I know myself and He is much less surprised by my failures than I am!  There's a delightful freedom and fresh wonder over the depths of His grace when I remember that.  He wasn't somehow duped when He chose me, when Jesus died for me so that I could be His.  He knew what He was getting and wanted me anyway.  And that's the thought that helps me want to start fresh again, to build more time into my schedule to be alone with the one who knows me and loves me like that.  And even if I'm back doing this again in January (which I expect I probably will be), maybe the desire will last a couple days longer, maybe I'll get a little bit better at being with Him, maybe His affection for me will sink in a little deeper, maybe I'll be a little bit different because of it. 

And who knows, maybe this time, it will be different :-)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

When I was in college, a few guys on our football team had shirts printed up one summer which read: (front) “BODY BY LAIR” and (back) “EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, DOMINATE.” We passed these shirts out to our teammates and wore them in the weight room for our first workout of the summer. Our Head Strength Coach, Todd Lair, was a super intense, fiery, hard core strength coach who never smiled and never made small talk. He never asked how things were going with you, but was always focused on the job at hand: making his players bigger, faster, and stronger. When he opened the door that morning and saw all of us wearing these new shirts with his name on the front, it was the only time I saw him smile in 4 years.

I loved the summers training with Coach Lair at The Citadel, because he would always push us beyond what we perceived to be our limits. He would always tell us that our minds are much weaker than our bodies and that we could do more. If there was anything I learned from 4 long years at The Citadel, it was that Coach Lair was right. There were numerous workouts when I was convinced I was completely done and couldn’t do another rep or set without passing out, but Coach Lair would force us to keep going and we would. At those times of complete physical exhaustion, his message was always the same, “Don’t be satisfied!”

I realize now, even though I am not playing football and don’t have Coach Lair telling me “Don’t be Satisfied, work harder!”, that I live in my relationship with my Heavenly Father as if He were whispering the same message to me. I don’t mean that I read my Bible or memorize Scripture until I pass out from exhaustion, but I do find myself struggling to believe that my Heavenly Father is completely satisfied with me because of Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection. The way this shows up is obvious, I struggle to just rest.

As I live in a culture that is so fast paced and is constantly communicating that we should “never be satisfied", we can always perform, achieve, and acquire more; it is hard for my heart to rest. I find myself yearning and longing even more to get to a quiet place and seek to hear the Lord’s “still small voice.” (1 Kings 19) Along with that, I find myself longing to be free of constant demands and cultural expectations to perform more and achieve more.

When I spend time looking at Jesus’ life, I am amazed at how He never allowed cultural demands and expectations to dictate his schedule. He was constantly misunderstood and was ok with it. I find myself reading and thinking how amazing that the voices of the crowd were not the loudest voices Jesus heard. Instead what He heard was the voice of His Father, who clearly said to Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt. 3:17) The satisfaction and affection of His Father was what defined who He was, and therefore determined what His life was all about. It was ok if crowds misunderstood Him. It was ok if people were disappointed with Him. His schedule was not dictated by their demands or expectations.

The Apostle Paul said that there is great gain in godliness with contentment. (1 Tim 6:6)How could he say that? He could say it because despite living in the most religiously demanding culture in the world, in which he was a disciplined All-Star, He had truly met Jesus. Once he actually met Jesus, he realized he could quit striving for the ever elusive rest the world has been promising since the Fall. When Jesus hung on the cross and said the words, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30), He did it for Paul, and He did it for me. He did it for me so I don’t have to live life with the mindset that I should never be satisfied, because God isn’t satisfied with me. He did it for me, so instead of striving to attain a rest that lasts, I could truly rest in Him. He did it so I could understand that instead of doing more, the Lord was serious when He said, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) He did it so that on that great day when I see the Lord face-to-face He can say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Mt 25)

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Cost of Availability

My addiction started about 15 years ago.  I was recently married and was working as the Network Administrator at Piece Goods in Winston-Salem, a since bankrupt competitor of Michaels.  There were only two of us working in the IT department supporting 240 retail stores.  Every night those stores transmitted their sales figures, which were then crunched through my database program, coming out the other end as the CEO's daily sales report.  One day my boss called me into his office and gave me a pager.  Yes, I know that sounds like two soup cans and a string today, but the pager communicated something to my heart - I was important, I was needed, I was indispensable.  They needed me to be available at all times in case something went wrong, something only I could fix. 

Now my addiction to being needed goes back much farther than that, but that pager introduced me to whole new way of feeling needed.  I discovered technology that made me available to anyone at anytime, a constant reminder that I might be needed at any moment.  Superman had super-hearing, Batman had the bat-signal searchlight, I had my pager.  And like any good Pastor or professional, I now have the latest and greatest smartphone to make me available to anyone who might need me.  (Unfortunately, the tongue-in-cheek humor reflects the realities of my heart more than I like to admit).

Not everyone struggles with the need-to-be-needed like I do, but there is a cultural expectation of near constant availability for everyone living in an urban context.  We expect everyone to have a cell phone and to answer it when we call.  If they can't take our call then they can respond to our text.  There are dozens of instant messaging programs so they we can be instantly available anytime we're at our computer.  We expect emails to be responded to within hours or a day at the most.  And because we expect others to be available to us, we live under the same assumed pressure for ourselves. 

In my first post, I mentioned that I had just returned from a five day retreat where there was no access to a cell phone or email.  The experience was so freeing, I've tried to leave my cell phone off on Sundays since then.  It's been fascinating to pay attention to what goes on inside me whenever I turn my phone off for the day!  First I feel rude for making myself unavailable and ignoring people's calls for 24 hours.  Then my ATMS flares up (Afraid-To-Miss-Something).  By turning off my phone I'm running the risk of missing out on being invited to something or being the last to know about the latest news.  ATMS is also what fuels my constant checking of Facebook and Twitter.  And then of course there's the painful realization that I'm not as important as I like to believe.  So far, my church and the rest of the world have gotten along just as well without me on Sunday afternoons.

I'm not intending to simply throw stones at technology.  I have a smartphone, Facebook account, and Twitter account.  And there are ways that technology can aid our spiritual growth.  I love having a bible I can reference at anytime in my phone.  Knowing what's happening with friends via Facebook and Twitter often makes our face-to-face times more meaningful because we already know some of what's going on in each other's lives.  And as Jason mentioned in his PoemFlow post, technology can even slow us down at times.  But there is a cost to the constant availability we live with and the technology that keeps us "connected" to the rest of the world.  There is a degree of soul distraction that comes with being constantly connected.  The regular "ping" of calls, texts, and emails keeps us from being fully present to our own thoughts and hearts, much less attentive to the whispers of God's Spirit within us.  Even when the phone isn't ringing the potential for interruption is a source of distraction.  There is a reason that couples need times away from the kids to reconnect.  Meaningful conversation and times of being fully present to each other are difficult when little Johnny and Suzy might burst in at any moment! 

Experiencing God's presence and hearing His voice is difficult in the city.  I'm discovering that it is easier though when I'm unplugged and intentionally unavailable to anyone else.  In these undistracted times I'm more aware of what's rumbling around in my own heart and more aware of Jesus speaking to the deep places of my soul.  Perhaps this is why Jesus told his disciples: "when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray" (Matt. 6:6).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Call it a Delight

I guess I need to start by apologizing to my fellow contributors for my slackness in getting my first post on here. Or, I could explain that while you guys have been creating posts, I have been learning how to rest.:)

As I was running around town today thinking of my list of things to get done, I found myself longing for Sunday to hurry up and get here. Even though Sunday is not a true Sabbath for me, due to being a pastor and Sunday being a work day, there is still something significant in being able to experience rest in the afternoon. Being able to turn off my cell phone, not answer emails, and just be with Jesus. In Isaiah 58 the Lord says to His people, 13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your own business on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or pursuing your own business, or talking idly; 14 then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

I used to read this passage and then go about observing the Sabbath as another opportunity for me to show the Lord how much I loved him by not doing "worldly" things on His Holy day. But when it was all said and done, I didn't truly call it a delight, but rather a duty. It's obvious that I was not honoring the Sabbath for anything close to what the Lord intended. The fact that my Heavenly Father not only knows me well enough to know that I need a full day of rest, away from the cares of the world, but also that He loves me enough to tell me "cease" from working so I can rest, it quite amazing. I find that when I do 'Call the Sabbath a Delight' and honor the Lord by spending time with Him, that my heart longs for it more during the week. It makes me more excited on Thursday afternoon for time alone with my Savior. It makes me excited about waking up earlier to spend time in His Word.

The question I am wrestling with now is, "How do I experience more Sabbath rest during the week?" "How do I experience more true soul rest in the midst of getting things done that have to get done?"
I've noticed that normally when I desire to do some leisure activity such as watch a movie, read a book, or watch a game, there are things I try to get done first so I can sit down and relax. This approach works well sometimes in that it does allow me to enjoy a game more b/c I know I don't have any work undone that I will have to finish afterwards. However, the problem with this approach when I apply it to spending time with the Lord, is that I always have things to do and always feel rushed and hurried. Therefore, I find that my time with the Lord during the week often doesn't feel like a delight as it should. I find that my soul is thirsty and longing to be nourished but the pull of the world saying 'get back and finish your work' seems very strong indeed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

PoemFlow

I've always enjoyed poetry. For numerous reasons I won't go into here (but would love to discuss over a Guinness sometime), poetry has always had a way of slowing me down and reminding me of simple truths.

My desire for instant gratification, however, makes me want to rush through a poem, understand it, glean a nugget of truth (to quote to someone else), and move on to the next stanza. But a new iPhone app called PoemFlow has reminded me to slow down to enjoy 2 minutes with a classic poem.

Basically, every day a new poem is delivered to the app. So, when you open the app, you tap the new poem and up pops the text. But the cool part is to turn the device ninety degrees, and the poem begins to flow. Just a few words at a time across the screen.

For me, it is a great example of what it looks like to slow down and simplify in the midst of my busyness. I am forced to take the poem slowly, intentionally. I can digest it and enjoy it more than rushing through a few blocks of text. It reminds me of the time tested Scripture reading practice called Lectio Divina. Google it. It's a method of allowing the Word to slowly, intentionally seep deep into the marrow of your soul. Drinking deeply. Soul-thirst satisfying.

Lectio Divina is what informed great poets like Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins to write poems like Pied Beauty, one of my favorites...especially in PoemFlow.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Strolling

So, I wanted my first post to be a foundational, exegetical espousal of Jesus's call and example to soul care. But, I'm going to leave that heavy lifting to the pastors. What really captures my heart is the idea of sacred places. I don't mean places like The Vatican or Notre Dame, I mean the secret places where we can retreat to find soul rest in the busyness of our days.

I've found several of these over the years in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Charlotte and, especially, Rock Hill where I work. My new favorite place is an asphalt trail that is about a 15 minute stroll around the lake in front of my office. I've walked it most days for the last two weeks. After being in this building for 11 years, I'd never experienced it.

Now, it's not picturesque. It's surrounded by buildings and rip rap and I'm scared of the geese. But, it's mine and it's close and it has flowing water. Around 10am, I stop whatever I'm doing, or not doing as the case may be, to spend 15 minutes with Jesus. Sometimes I process the previous night's conflict with my wife, sometimes I pray for my work, sometimes I just walk...quietly...with Jesus.

As a commercial real estate 100% commissioned guy, times are not good financially. Practical knowledge tells me to work more and harder to make any money available in this terrible market. I'm reminded though of a series of passages in Luke 4-9 where Jesus heals and prays, rebukes the pharisees and prays, selects the apostles and prays, feeds the 5,000 and prays. How much more good could He have done if he'd not been praying all the time? With Jesus as my guide, I'll err on the side of being with Him more.

I have a long and inconsistent history making this time of quiet. I'm recommitted to simplifying my life, and am excited to watch the trees bud and bloom on my path. I'll write more in future posts about making space for simplicity, how cigars helped me make time for Jesus, and spiritual rhythms in a busy career. Looking forward to strolling with you.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Original Idea

I moved to Charlotte from the small town of Kernersville in 2002.  My wife and I immediately noticed how much faster the pace of life is here in Charlotte.  Even our closest friends rarely drop by unannounced, people don't simply "hang out" for long periods of time.  Spending time with anyone seems to require coordinating busy calendars 2 to 3 weeks out.  Over the past year or so, I've begun to be aware of the spiritual affect living in this fast-paced culture has had on me.  Regularly experiencing Jesus in deep, meaningful ways has become increasingly difficult since coming to Charlotte.  At times if wondered if this was just part of being a pastor in a busy church plant, or having kids who are older and busier and require more of me.  But as I've thought about it more and talked with, pastored, and counseled other busy Charlotteans, I've come to believe the typical fast-pace of our urban living is a significant obstacle to experiencing Jesus more deeply.  

Recently, I was able to attend a Spiritual Formation Retreat led by Fil Anderson of Journey Resources and Steve and Gwen Smith of The Potter's Inn.  For 5 days I was in a secluded setting without access to cell phone calls, text messages, or email.  We were encouraged not to bring laptops (which felt a bit like leaving my favorite blanket at home).  I was amazed at how each day of living at a slower pace, disconnected from the constant flow of interruptions allowed my soul to settle and made it easier to be aware of God's presence.  

I've been fortunate to be mentored by men who emphasized intimacy with Jesus over doing for Jesus (especially for pastors).  They introduced me early on to Eugene Peterson, who's written extensively for pastors, calling them to minister out of a deep personal spiritual life.  The vast majority of these men also lived that principle out strikingly well.  I'm also a pastor which means I have a great degree of control over my schedule.  And I'm grateful to be in a church where my spiritual health is valued over my performance.  In spite of all that, I constantly get pulled into the city's culture of busyness and constant availability.  And as a result, I regularly find myself detached from my own soul and from Jesus.

Because I've had tastes of living differently in other contexts and more recently enjoyed something better during my 5 days of retreat, I desperately want to figure out how to live with a healthy spirituality in the midst of my urban context.  I firmly believe that leaving the city isn't the answer.  The New Testament is primarily about the gospel going forth in cities and transforming them.  The apostles' pastoral letters encourage people how to live out their faith in churches planted in urban centers.  They call believers to be salt and light and transform the cities they're in rather than try to escape from them.  So, healthy spirituality must be possible in urban settings, but it will most definitely be a counter-cultural swimming against the tide.

So, my hope for this blog is that it will be more than just my own thoughts and ramblings, but rather a source of conversation, brain-storming, and encouragement amongst like-minded friends who long to live differently, swim against the urban current, and walk more intimately with our Savior.